When Howard Davies-Carr uploaded a 55-second video to YouTube back in May 2007, he believed it to be little more than ‘mildly funny’.
It featured footage of his two boys, Harry, three, and one-year-old Charlie, and Howard thought their interaction might tickle their godfather in the U.S. It certainly wasn’t intended to be a permanent feature on the site.
But when he went to delete the film a couple of months later, he found that it had thousands of views — and the number was increasing before his eyes.
‘I did think,”Why are all these people watching it?” I certainly didn’t have that many friends,’ he recalls now.
It’s a question Howard, a 52-year-old technology company manager, and his wife Shelley, 44, have mused on over the years. For the film Charlie Bit My Finger has become one of the most-viewed viral videos of all time, seen by more than 883 million people and counting.
It also propelled the family into the global spotlight and gained them advertising and sponsorship deals which, over the years, reportedly netted them hundreds of thousands of pounds.
And yesterday, the sum was further inflated when Charlie Bit My Finger was auctioned off as a ‘non-fungible token’ (NFT) — a unit of digital data that is a unique fingerprint of the video.
Harry and baby Charlie in the famous video. When Howard Davies-Carr uploaded a 55-second video to YouTube back in May 2007, he believed it to be little more than ‘mildly funny’
Astonishingly, it fetched more than £537,000. Not bad for a ‘mildy funny’ video taken on the spur of the moment 14 years ago — although NFTs are currently all the rage in the art world, with one bidder paying £50 million for digital pictures by an artist called Beeple earlier this year.
NFTs are a baffling business, and one that Shelley cheerfully admits goes over her head.
‘I don’t understand it at all,’ she says when I arrive at their home in Buckinghamshire to have a chat about this intriguing new chapter in the family history. ‘But the boys are very into it.’
These boys are barely recognisable from the angelic tykes we saw in 2007: Harry, now 17, is a lolloping 6 ft A-level student, while 15-year-old Charlie is taking his GCSEs.
Bringing up the rear are younger brothers Jasper, who turns 13 next month, and nine-year-old Rupert.
That’s an awful lot of boys under one roof, although Shelley seems to run an orderly ship. ‘I rarely see them,’ she says. ‘I feed them and then they retreat to their rooms.’
Harry, centre left, and Charlie, centre right, are pictured now with their parents Howard and Shelley
Wind back the clock to 2007, however, and Harry and Charlie were chubby-faced cuties content to snuggle up on the sofa, where their dad captured his now world-renowned footage.
Howard would be the first to admit that it’s not exactly Shakespeare: it shows Harry with his arms wrapped round Charlie, who grabs his brother’s hand and bites his finger, much to both boys’ amusement.
‘Charlie bit me,’ chortles a playful Harry. Harry then puts his finger in Charlie’s mouth again — this time he bites it harder. Harry’s amusement turns to indignation as the pain registers, his face creases and soon he’s screaming: ‘Ooouuuch!’ Followed by an outraged: ‘Ouch Charlie, that really hurt!’
As for Charlie, he just giggles.
After filming it, Howard sent the clip to his friend Skip in Colorado, a former colleague and godfather to both boys. Too large to send in an email, he uploaded it to a private YouTube account which he subsequently made public to help his parents access it more easily.
‘I honestly thought nothing more of it,’ he says. But when he returned to the site two months later to remove it, it had amassed a couple of thousand views. By the end of the year it was a million.
‘That’s nothing compared to viral videos now — but it was a lot then,’ says Howard.
As the number continued to climb — and the video was being shared all over the internet — Howard and Shelley made the canny decision to partner YouTube and cash in on advertising revenue associated with the video.
‘This film was out there. It was being shared and copied, so I had to make a decision: is this something that we accept is ours and do something more with? Or let everybody else exploit it and make money from it?’ says Howard.
Sponsorship deals started to roll in, including adverts and promotional videos for everything from Ragu to Delta Airlines in America, for which the family were flown to Seattle (pictured: The family in 2017)
Pretty soon, sponsorship deals started to roll in, including adverts and promotional videos for everything from Ragu to Delta Airlines in America, for which the family were flown to Seattle.
‘We turned down a lot more things than we’ve done,’ says Howard. ‘I was clear I didn’t want stuff to be too intrusive or interfere with the boys’ schooling.’ Nonetheless, it’s been a lucrative sideline and, while Howard won’t be drawn on how much the video made, some have suggested it was in excess of £1 million before yesterday’s auction.
Howard merely raises an eyebrow when I put the figure to him, insisting that while the money has been ‘life-changing’, it is not quite in the way people might assume.
‘It depends what you mean by changing your life,’ he says. ‘We’ve not bought a sports car or a new house. I always had a good job, so you’re sitting in the same house I filmed it in, and I’ve got the same car I had back then.
‘The big thing it allowed Shelley and I to do was decide to have a fourth child and know we could send them all to private school.’ Other videos followed, among them Charlie on the scooter he got for Christmas; The Accident, which features Charlie eating at the kitchen table, dropping a piece of food and biting his own finger instead; and Try Again, which shows their then baby brother Jasper learning to walk by pushing a toy along the floor.
These also had millions of views, but they never reached the viral status of their predecessor — not that Howard was aiming for that.
‘It was more a case of if something funny happened, I would get the camera out — but I didn’t want to get into a situation where I had to produce a video every three days,’ he says.
It begs the question as to why that first video struck such a chord. ‘I think it’s because what you see is universal,’ says Howard. ‘It’s something everyone can understand. You don’t need to speak English to know what’s going on. Ultimately, it was just a moment in time.’
One that, in a mind-boggling development, turned out to have been enjoyed by al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden: U.S. soldiers found a copy of the footage on his computer during their 2011 raid on his hideout. ‘That was a bit mind-blowing,’ Howard says now.
Meanwhile, Harry and Charlie admit to mixed feelings when they look at the footage.
‘It’s quite nostalgic,’ says Harry, who considers himself the ‘sensible’ one and hopes to do ‘something in engineering’ down the line. ‘For me, it’s more about reminding me of the stuff we did afterwards.’
His younger brother — who jokingly describes himself as ‘charming, handsome and humble’ — feels the same way.
‘I’m a bit numb to it now as I’ve seen it so many times,’ he says.
Yet the fact remains that while the family may have become immune to the film’s charms, up until yesterday it was still getting a consistent 20,000 views each day. Now it’s been sold, however, it’s likely to be removed from YouTube for good — although the ultimate decision will lie with the buyer.
This seems a bit drastic, especially since people still seem to enjoy it. ‘People have said we can’t take it off as it’s a moment in time — but the fact the video is on YouTube now doesn’t mean it will be there for ever,’ says Howard.
The prospect of raising a healthy sum of money helped make the decision, of course. ‘I can’t honestly say it’s not about the money, but it’s not a driving force,’ he insists. ‘I see it as a bit of closure.’
As for yesterday’s auction windfall, Howard says the family are ‘thrilled’. They’re celebrating by going out for a curry, although beyond that they have made no decisions on how to spend their money — bar one: ‘Shelley wants a new shed,’ he says. And the boys might find their university fees are paid.